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The English language in Northern England has been shaped by the region's history of settlement and migration, and today encompasses a group of related dialects known as Northern England English (or, simply, Northern English in the United Kingdom). Historically, the strongest influence on the varieties of the English language spoken in Northern England was the Northumbrian dialect of Old English, but contact with Old Norse during the Viking Age and with Irish English following the Great Famine have produced new and distinctive styles of speech. Some "Northern" traits can be found further south than others: only the northernmost accents of Northumberland and Tyneside retain the pre-Great Vowel Shift pronunciation of words such as town (//, "toon"), but all northern accents lack the FOOT–STRUT split, and this trait extends a significant distance into the Midlands.
There are traditional dialects associated with many of the historic counties, including the Cumbrian dialect, Lancashire dialect and Yorkshire dialect, but new, distinctive dialects have arisen in cities following urbanisation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Greater Manchester has the Manchester dialect, Liverpool and Merseyside have Scouse, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne has Geordie. Many Northern English accents are stigmatised, and speakers often attempt to repress Northern speech characteristics in professional environments, although in recent years Northern English speakers have been in demand for call centres, where Northern stereotypes of honesty and straightforwardness are seen as a plus.
Northern English is one of the major groupings of England English dialects; other major groupings include East Anglian English, East and West Midlands English, West Country (Somerset, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall) and Southern English English.
The varieties of English spoken across Great Britain form a dialect continuum, and there is no universally agreed definition of which varieties are Northern. The most restrictive definition of the linguistic North includes only those dialects spoken north of the River Tees. Other linguists, such as John C. Wells, describe these as the dialects of the "Far North" and treat them as a subset of all Northern English dialects. Conversely, Wells uses a very broad definition of the linguistic North, comprising all dialects that have not undergone the TRAP–BATH and FOOT–STRUT splits. Using this definition, the isogloss between North and South runs from the River Severn to the Wash – this definition covers not just the entire North of England (which Wells divides into "Far North" and "Middle North") but also most of the Midlands, including the distinctive Brummie (Birmingham) and Black Country dialects.
In historical linguistics, the dividing line between North and Midlands runs from the River Ribble or River Lune on the west coast to the River Humber on the east coast. The dialects of this region are descended from the Northumbrian dialect of Old English rather than Mercian or other Anglo-Saxon dialects. In a very early study of English dialects, Alexander J Ellis defined the border between the north and the midlands as that where the word house is pronounced with u: to the north (as also in Scots). Although well-suited to historical analysis, this line does not reflect contemporary language; this line divides Lancashire and Yorkshire in half and few would today consider Manchester or Leeds, both located south of the line, as part of the Midlands.
An alternative approach is to define the linguistic North as equivalent to the cultural area of Northern England – approximately the seven historic counties of Cheshire, Cumberland, County Durham, Lancashire, Northumberland, Westmorland and Yorkshire, or the three modern statistical regions of North East England, North West England and Yorkshire and the Humber. This approach is taken by the Survey of English Dialects (SED), which uses the historic counties (minus Cheshire) as the basis of study. The SED also groups Manx English with Northern dialects, although this is a distinct variety of English and the Isle of Man is not part of England. Under Wells' scheme, this definition includes Far North and Middle North dialects, but excludes the Midlands dialects.
Many northern dialects reflect the influence of the Old Norse language strongly, compared with other varieties of English spoken in England.
In addition to previous contact with Vikings, during the 9th and 10th centuries most of northern and eastern England was part of either the Danelaw, or the Danish-controlled Kingdom of Northumbria (with the exception of much of present-day Cumbria, which was part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde). Consequently, East Yorkshire dialects, in particular, are considered to have been influenced heavily by Old East Norse (the ancestor language of modern Danish).
However, Northumbrian Anglo-Saxon and Old West Norse (from which modern Norwegian is descended) have arguably had a greater impact, over a longer period, on most northern dialects than Old East Norse. While authoritative quantification is not available, some estimates have suggested as many as 7% of West Cumbrian dialect words are Norse in origin or derived from it.
During the mid and late 19th century, there was large-scale migration from Ireland, which affected the speech of parts of Northern England. This is most apparent in the dialects along the west coast, such as Liverpool, Birkenhead, Barrow-in-Furness and Whitehaven. The east-coast town of Middlesbrough also has a significant Irish influence on its dialect, as it grew during the period of mass migration. There was also some influence on speech in Manchester, but relatively little on Yorkshire beyond Middlesbrough.
Northern English contains:
In some areas, it can be noticed that dialects and phrases can vary greatly within regions too. For example, the Lancashire dialect has many sub-dialects and varies noticeably from West to East and even from town to town. Within as little as 5 miles there can be an identifiable change in accent. The Yorkshire Dialect Society has always separated West Riding dialect from that in the North and East ridings.
There are several speech features that unite most of the accents of Northern England and distinguish them from Southern England and Scottish accents:
|Major distinctive sounds of Northern English|
|//||bath, dance, trap||[æ̞~a~ä] listen|
|//||bra, calm, father||[aː~äː] listen||[ɒː] listen|
|//||car, heart, stark||// listen||[ɒː] listen|
|//||fight, ride, try|
|//||brown, mouth||[ɐʊ]||[æʊ]||[ɐʊ~u:] listen|
|//||lame, rein, stain||[ɛɪ~e̞ɪ] listen||[eɪ] listen||[ɪə~e:]|
|//||first, learn, word||[ɛ̝ː~e̞ː] listen||[øː~ʊː] listen|
|//||doctor, martyr, smaller|
|//||beam, marine, fleece||[ɪi]||[i] listen||[ɪi~i]|
|//||city, honey, parties||[i] listen||[ɪi~i]||[i]|
|//||all, bought, saw||[ɔː] listen||[ɒː~ɔː]|
|//||goal, shown, toe||[ɔʊ~ɔo]||[ɔu~ɜu~ɛʉ]||[ʊə~oː]|
|//||food, glue, lose||[ɵʏ] or [ɛʊ]||[ʏː] listen||[ʉː] listen||[yː]||[ʉː] listen||[ʉu~ʊu~ɵʊ]|
|intervocalic & postvocalic //||racquet, joker, luck||[k]||[k] or [k~x]||[k] listen||[k~x] listen or
|initial //||hand, head, home||[∅] or [h]||[h]|
|//||lie, mill, salad||[l] listen|
|stressed-syllable //||bang, singer, wrong||[ŋg~ŋ]||[ŋ]|
|post-consonantal & intervocalic //||current, three, pray||[ɹ]||[ɾ]||[ɹ~ɾ]|
& pre-consonantal //
|attic, bat, fitness||[ʔ] or [t(ʰ)]||[θ̠] listen or [ʔ]|
The grammatical patterns of Northern England English are similar to those of British English in general. However, there are several unique characteristics that mark out Northern syntax from neighbouring dialects.
Under the Northern subject rule (NSR), the suffix "-s" (which in Standard English grammar only appears in the third person singular present) is attached to verbs in many present and past-tense forms (leading to, for example, "the birds sings"). More generally, third-person singular forms of irregular verbs such as to be may be used with plurals and other grammatical persons; for instance "the lambs is out". In modern dialects, the most obvious manifestation is a levelling of the past tense verb forms was and were. Either form may dominate depending on the region and individual speech patterns (so some Northern speakers may say "I was" and "You was" while others prefer "I were" and "You were") and in many dialects especially in the far North, weren't is treated as the negation of was.
The "epistemic mustn't", where mustn't is used to mark deductions such as "This mustn't be true", is largely restricted within the British Isles to Northern England, although it is more widely accepted in American English, and is likely inherited from Scottish English. A few other Scottish traits are also found in far Northern dialects, such as double modal verbs (might could instead of might be able to), but these are restricted in their distribution and are mostly dying out.
While standard English now only has a single second-person pronoun, you, many Northern dialects have additional pronouns either retained from earlier forms or introduced from other variants of English. The pronouns thou and thee have survived in many rural Northern accents. In some case, these allow the distinction between formality and familiarity to be maintained, while in others thou is a generic second-person singular, and you (or ye) is restricted to the plural. Even when thou has died out, second-person plural pronouns are common. In the more rural dialects and those of the far North, this is typically ye, while in cities and areas of the North West with historical Irish communities, this is more likely to be yous.
Conversely, the process of "pronoun exchange" means that many first-person pronouns can be replaced by the first-person objective plural us (or more rarely we or wor) in standard constructions. These include me (so "give me" becomes "give us"), we (so "we Geordies" becomes "us Geordies") and our (so "our cars" becomes "us cars"). The latter especially is a distinctively Northern trait.
Almost all British vernaculars have regularised reflexive pronouns, but the resulting form of the pronouns varies from region to region. In Yorkshire and the North East, hisself and theirselves are preferred to himself and themselves. Other areas of the North have regularised the pronouns in the opposite direction, with meself used instead of myself. This appears to be a trait inherited from Irish English, and like Irish speakers, many Northern speakers use reflexive pronouns in non-reflexive situations for emphasis. Depending on the region, reflexive pronouns can be pronounced (and often written) as if they ended -sen, -sel or -self (even in plural pronouns) or ignoring the suffix entirely.
In addition to Standard English terms, the Northern English lexis includes many words derived from Norse languages, as well as words from Middle English that disappeared in other regions. Some of these are now shared with Scottish English and the Scots language, with terms such as bairn ("child"), bonny ("beautiful"), gang or gan ("go/ gone/ going") and kirk ("church") found on both sides of the Anglo-Scottish border. Very few terms from Brythonic languages have survived, with the exception of place name elements (especially in Cumbrian toponymy) and the Yan Tan Tethera counting system, which largely fell out of use in the nineteenth century. The Yan Tan Tethera system was traditionally used in tasks such as shepherding, counting stitches in knitting and reckoning money, as well as in children's nursery rhymes and counting-out games, and may have been borrowed from a relatively modern form of the Welsh language rather than being a remnant of the Celtic of Northern England.
A study of a corpus of Late Modern English texts from or set in Northern England found lad ("boy" or "young man") and lass ("girl" or "young woman") were the most widespread "pan-Northern" dialect terms. Other terms in the top ten included a set of three indefinite pronouns owt ("anything"), nowt ("naught" or "nothing") and summat ("something"), the Scottish bairn, bonny and gang, and the phonetic spellings sel/sen ("self") and mun ("must"). Regional dialects within Northern England also had many unique terms, and canny ("clever") and nobbut ("nothing but") were both common in the corpus, despite being limited to the North East and to the North West and Yorkshire respectively.